Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones brings water safety message to Chicago

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Swimming excursions can be some of the most fun times a youngster can have during summertime, but they can also lead to injury and death from drowning in an instant. Keeping the activity fun and safe is the goal of Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones, who brough

Swimming excursions can be some of the most fun times a youngster can have during summertime, but they can also lead to injury and death from drowning in an instant. Keeping the activity fun and safe is the goal of Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones, who brought a strong message of water safety to the young swimmers and their parents at Douglas Park on the city’s West Side. Jones, an Olympic gold medalist and American record holder in the 50-meter freestyle, has joined forces with the USA Swimming Foundation, ConocoPhillips and the “Make a Splash” program to bring the message of water safety to youth throughout the country. Make a Splash has been around for several years and has helped thousands of kids take swimming lessons nationwide. The organization focuses on African American and Hispanic children, who both have low levels of swimming proficiency compared to their white counterparts, leaving them with an increased risk of drowning. A 2010 study commissioned by USA Swimming found that approximately 70 percent of African American, and 58 percent of Hispanic children reported low or no swimming ability. The study also found three primary reason why Blacks and Hispanics don’t swim: 1. Parental encouragement 2. Personal appearance such as ashy skin and wet hair. 3. Fear of drowning Jones began swimming at an early age after a near-fatal water park incident.  This experience as a youth, and his desire to use his swimming success to benefit others, gave him with the motivation to get involved in water safety. “Swimming is fun and everyone sees it as being fun. But we have to see it as more than just being fun – it’s also a life skill,” Jones said. Recalling his own near-drowning experience, Jones says that it almost went unnoticed because drowning doesn’t always involve the splashing and yelling for help scenarios that one might expect. “I didn’t make a noise,” said Jones. “I came down the slide, hit the water, flipped upside down and was under water. But no one knew I was under until they looked around and didn’t see me. They finally saw me and grabbed me. Most of the time it’s really silent.” He really didn’t want to go back in the water after the incident, but his mother persisted, so he took the lessons and learned how to swim from trained instructors. “Parents need to take a big role in teaching their kids that the only way you can be sure your kid can swim is if they’ve had lessons,” Jones said. Jones wasn’t aware of the accident two years ago when three North Lawndale College Prep students drowned in a late-night boating incident on the Fox River. North Lawndale’s campus is just across the field from the Douglas Park swimming pool where he gave his speech and swimming lesson and he was moved when told about the tragedy. “It saddens my heart,” he said. “I don’t condone sneaking out like that, but being in the water is fun and kids want to do it. The problem comes down to being water safe. I don’t know if those kids could swim or not, but a lot of kids aren’t water safe and a lot of kids have a false confidence that they can swim.” In order to get kids water safe, Jones recommends between eight and ten swimming lessons. He and Make a Splash aren’t trying to create champion swimmers in Jones’ image – they just want to keep kids from drowning and have a great time swimming. And he said even if you don’t plan on swimming, you should still learn how. “It’s important to realize that this (taking swimming lessons) is not an ongoing thing,” Jones said. “I made a career out of swimming – everyone doesn’t have to do that, but take the time to learn.” To further emphasize the importance of being water safe, Jones compares learning to swim with some of the other common sports and recreational activities. “It’s like riding a bike, but fortunately if you don’t know how to ride a bike you probably won’t die. If you don’t know how to dribble a basketball you won’t die, but if you don’t know how to swim you might die. So it’s a life skill and you need to learn how to swim,” he said. Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender. Photo Caption: Jones helps a budding swimmer get used to the water. (Defender/Worsom Robinson)

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